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Systematic Problem Solving Strategies: Improving Customer Satisfaction and Efficiency

Problem solving strategies are common place in business and it is essential that the right tool is used for the specific problem in hand.

Process improvement and effective problem solving strategies are two weaknesses of many companies. Every company has problems. Every single one. The difference between the outstanding, world class performers and the average companies is how well they react to issues when they arise. More importantly, how well they put to bed issues that have risen, so they do not come back.

The better performing companies have also found ways to get better at what they do - continuously.

Some companies believe that scrap, waste and defects are just the cost of being in business. "It's what happens - it's life!" They're right! It is a cost… a cost that can be avoided, because this cost is a cost of poor quality!

This cost adds up, and up, and up in the form of dollars, euros, Pounds that can, and does affect your company's ability to remain profitable... and stay in business. Remember, the only thing that eventually kills a business is having no cash!

Jidoka - Finding the problem and eliminating those pebbles…….

The Japanese call the art of problem solving strategies as Jidoka. Plain and simply; it is the method of spotting problems as they arise in the work place, stopping, analysing and spending time to resolve that issue so it doesn't happen again. This involves a continuous improvement culture, which takes time and great leadership.

Not using effective problem solving strategies to identify, contain and eliminate the root causes has a massive and detrimental impact on business performance and stability, and ultimately seriously jeopardises the business' competitiveness and existence.

Picking the right issue

In business, errors are made; issues arise, so how do you know what problem to deal with amongst the mountain of problems that may exist. Where do you start? What problem strategies are there to help diagnose and eliminate the causes amongst the myriad of issues?

Simply put, one must find the biggest impact, either by number of times the issue arises or the financial impact it has on the business, or any other scoring method. Then it is a case of focusing the problem solving effort on this issue until it is resolved.

The Pareto chart is an effective tool for just this. It enables the organisation to visually identify the biggest issue and then allows the team to focus on rectifying it. Once eliminated, one can focus on the next biggest issue and so on and so forth in a structured and logical way.

The old cliche of, "How do you eat an Elephant?" The answer: one bite at a time and this is very true in problem solving. You can't change the world over night but you can focus the company's resources and energy on the biggest impact problem or the top 5 issues, rather than boiling the ocean, so to speak, starting everything and not completing anything.

Problem Solving Strategies Road Map

When thinking of the term 'problem solving strategies', one can be forgiven for conjuring up a myriad of statistical and in depth analysis tools, however the vision of Kaizen and the identification and elimination of anything that is a variation to standard is what problem solving strategies is all about.

You simply pick the most appropriate tool for the problem at hand.

There are a couple of well-known continuous improvement road maps that should be used, like PDCA or DMAIC, but in essence, problem solving is all about the following:

1. Identify the problem

2. Identify the root causes

3. Brainstorm the solutions

4. Select the appropriate solution

5. Implement and check the impact of the solution

The diagram below summarises.

problem solving process

Identify the Problem

You may know there is a problem, but do you know what the root cause is? Can you put your finger on the actual problem? Are there a number of issues that are just symptoms of a bigger cause?

It can be easy to get lost in the see of issues and problems in a business, but keeping it simple is the main aim of the game.

Simply put, if you have a problem somewhere and it is causing a big impact, measure it! Understand the process: What is the actual problem? How many times does it happen and what generic factors are causing this?

Simple Visual tools to firstly expose the problem are QCPC charts, and Pareto Diagrams to display quick, simple and visual understanding of the problem, its occurrence and the generic reasons why can be captured.

After this, the next thing to do is to understand the problem further and drill down to the root causes……..

Identify the Root Causes

Analysis tools like the Process flow chart, Scatter diagrams, histograms and others can help pin point at what point in the process issues arise, but a simple tool to help kick-start the root cause analysis is the Fishbone diagram.

The objective here is to wade through the symptoms, and identify the root causes to the problem.

Brainstorm Alternative Solutions

Use a group, preferably cross functional, to understand the problem, identify the potential causes and agree what they think the root causes are.

At this point, a simple exercise would be to discuss the problem and in turn, get each individual within the team to identify possible causes. No idea is a bad idea, and the remit is to get as many ideas as possible.

This process can be over one session or a number of detailed sessions. The time span will very much depend on the size of the problem.

Select the Most Appropriate Solution

An agreement must be reached by the team as to what the root cause(s) are, and so, from the ideas generated in the previous step, the team must agree as to what the top three possible root causes are.

Once agreed, it's on to the next stage to work out possible solutions to remove the root causes.

Implement and Check Solution

Root causes and countermeasures highlighted and agreed? The next step is to implement the solutions, checking the impact of them, and measuring to ensure that the root cause(s) has gone, thus the problem has been eliminated.

This stage may take time to gather the data and measure the process outputs to truly identify the impact of the solution - all the time searching to see the level of impact to the initial problem and whether the problem is still there.

If the problem is in fact still there, then its back to the group brainstorming stage for further analysis, and repeat the process again.

Problem Solving Tools

Remember, the key is to eliminate problems as soon as you can, therefore creating a continuous improvement culture, which embeds Jidoka principles.

A number of problem solving strategies are currently popular and can be seen below, so give them a go and see how you get on. These tools can be used in any industry, company or sector, with the remit of identifying the problem at source, correcting this problem and removing the root causes for good. - Continuously striving for this relentless identification and elimination of problems will mean that your company is more competitive and is effectively using problem solving strategies to gain leverage on the competition.

Depending upon the complexity of a problem, your organisation may choose to use any one, or indeed a number of, the following problem solving strategies:

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